Suffragettes ‘most hardcore girl gang’

// 15 December 2008

I love suffragette stories as much as the next feminist, but this story by Julie Burchill in The Sun is… baffling.

The story is full of breathless lines like this:

Those prim and proper Edwardian ladies looked so weak and wet, all those bonnets and bustles.


Capitalisation and emphasis theirs, not mine.

You’ve got to love this:

Forever slashing paintings, smashing windows, setting fire to post boxes, chaining themselves to railings, vandalizing golf courses, hiring out boats and sailing up the Thames shouting abuse at Parliament through loud-hailers, and throwing themselves under racehorses — they seemed to me to be the best girl gang in the world.

And at the end of their fun and games there wasn’t the long, lonely drop of the car going over the cliff or the bleak months in the juvenile correction centre.

No, there was the right to vote! Kicks AND justice!

But, well, that aside, this story is a bit… problematic. First of all, as you probably know, the first women to get the right to vote was limited by age, education and property. The Sun says:

It was some sort of progress, no doubt, but its very randomness was insulting.

Obviously this is a total misrepresentation, of what was a clear policy of denying basic democratic representation to working class & young women.

Burchill swings wildly around in this piece, from enthusiasm over the suffragettes, to condemning terrorism, to Page 3 and an attack on Clare Short.

Interestingly, ten years later she was still in the Commons, but this time hosting a meeting of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the extreme Islamofascist party which then-Prime Minister Tony Blair sought to ban.

Among numerous other examples of bigotry, the manifesto of this vile organisation states “the primary role of a woman is that of a wife and mother”, “segregation of the sexes is fundamental”, “women are not allowed to take charge of ruling nor to practise any actions of ruling” and “within their public life, nothing of the women’s body is to be revealed, apart from her face and hands”.

So . . . an organisation which seeks to force women to hide their bodies should not be banned, according to sister Clare.

But an institution that gives women choice on whether or not they show their bodies, such as Page 3, should be banned!

With sisters like that, who needs sexists!

Which she then compounds:

Open a magazine and you’ll find some female cretin wittering on about how stressful it is having to vote once every four years, and if she was only allowed to lick out toilet bowls wearing a Cath Kidston straitjacket, she’d feel like a real woman for once.

Do us all a favour, you ignorant nostalgia freaks who should know enough about the dreadful oppression of your kind to appreciate the beauty of choice, but instead bleat about what a “tyranny” it is.

Why not put your money where your moan is and move to one of the world’s many Muslim dictatorships — more than 50 when I last counted — where you’ll find old-fashioned values aplenty.

Where to even begin? Maybe with the fact that I’m not sure I’ve ever read an article by a woman bemoaning the right to vote. How about the way that Burchill relentlessly positions Muslim countries as retrogressive compared to the UK? (Although the only good thing she manages to come up with in the whole piece about women in the UK is that we have the right to vote, and the ‘choice’ to appear in Page 3! Way to set the bar low!)

Image shared by f.trainer, under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 15 December 2008 at 2:27 pm

In fact all women irrespective of their class were denied the right to vote if they were under 30 and only women with property and over 30 were ‘given permission’ to vote by male politicians.

It is not Muslim countries pe se which are seeking to keep women oppressed but fundamentalists. Conflating Islam with ‘terrorism’ is a deliberate attempt to hide the complexities of how women globally are still being oppressed. The UK’s record on oppression of women is not one which many would like publicised. One only has to see how the labour government continues to abuse women who are seeking aslyum by holding them in detention camps and subjecting them to male sexual violence. But there we don’t want to hear about this instead we want to believe it is Muslim countries which are oppressive compared to white western countries. It is not that simple – because how male power and control operates varies from culture to culture. But the Sun is not interested in intelligent analysis instead it is only interested in propaganda by demonising muslim countries and claiming white western countries are superior.

Anyone who opposes white western capitalism is apparently a ‘terrorist.’ This is the propaganda we are being subjected to on a daily basis. Pakistan is now supposedly the new ‘enemy’ because it supposedly harbouring terrorists – but we mustn’ look beneath the surface because if we did we would see it is more complex than that. Instead keep it simple and ensure the populace are kept in ignorance.

Ellie // Posted 15 December 2008 at 3:15 pm

Julie Birchill strikes again :/

Kath // Posted 15 December 2008 at 4:00 pm

Oh dear, I wouldn’t bother to read this article because a) it’s by Julie Birchill and b) it’s in the Sun. So I’m just commenting on what is written here. Of course the situation regarding Islam and women’s rights is more complex than Muslim = bad, white Western = good, but to deny that the UK is better in this regard than most Muslim countries is ridiculous. I am rather sick of the pandering to religion (including Julie Birchill’s Christianity) that goes on on this site.

Kristel // Posted 15 December 2008 at 11:10 pm

The “weak and wet” (???) Edwardian suffragettes didn’t have quite as much fun and games as Julie Burchill makes out. What about being arrested, manhandled by the police and then force-fed in prison?

And someone correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the first women to get the vote have to be married as well as over 30 and owners of property?

Jenn // Posted 16 December 2008 at 10:30 am

Actually, I think it’s all a bit problematic, including the bit where she talks about the Suffragettes like they’re the Spice Girls. And it’s all about her and how she was into them at a younger age than everyone else. And then the rest.

Well, you know, just a bit problematic!

Plus, what is it with the trend of feminist broadsheet columnists illustrating their articles with pictures of Muslim women lately? It’s getting a bit disturbing.

Jess McCabe // Posted 16 December 2008 at 1:01 pm

@Jenn Well, I guess so. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a bit lighthearted about the suffragettes per se, but I suppose it’s possible I was carried away by all the BOLD CAPITALS :-)

I’m not sure about broadsheet columnists – I only ever read the papers online, and they tend to strip out the photos mostly.

Jenn // Posted 16 December 2008 at 4:20 pm

Well, not sure about photos actually, come to think of it, but there’s a bit of a trend of saying “thank god we’re not muslim!” somewhere in the article.

As for the bit at the beginning, nothing wrong with being light-hearted, but it’s all about her isn’t it? “I was into the suffragettes when I was this young!” Oh get over yourself Julie.

Sabre // Posted 16 December 2008 at 5:28 pm

OMG what an awful article. I’m from a Muslim family (though not religious myself) and this made me furious! I could rant endlessly but I’ll restrict myself to the following:

Why did she constantly have to use Muslim countries as examples where women are opressed? Women are oppressed in MOST COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD! Including this one! Muslims aren’t the great evil out there nor are muslim values. I would say the Pope and Catholic values have had a huge influence on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS as well as generally denying millions of women the right to control their reproduction – sounds like oppression to me! Not that I want to play the Oppression Olympics here.

I’m irritated that way ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islamist’ have become interchangeable in so many peoples’ minds, they are NOT the same thing!

Why does the Afghan woman not have a face? She doesn’t even have eyes, she must not be a real person therefore. She looks a bit like the Grim Reaper, quick peoples, something to strike fear into your hearts!

Bringing up ze Germans and WW2, a classic favourite of patriots! And then she calls others ‘ignorant nostalgia freaks’. Oh yes Islamist extremists ARE the biggest threat to world peace! Of course large-scale humanitarian crises like in Darfur and the DRC aren’t really that bad compared to Islamist terrorists. And climnate change won’t really result in wars over land and water will it? *RANT*

OK I get that Julie Bindel is trying to enthuse people about the Suffragettes and in a weird way, feminism. But you shouldn’t have to ‘other’ another group of people to elevate women. When did it become OK to target Muslims so relentlessly?

One last point (I promise!) – while I believe strongly in voting and democracy, I think the Suffragettes worked to win women the RIGHT to vote, not the obligation to vote. I didn’t vote in the last election because I was disillusioned with all the options. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate being able to vote. I hate when I see women being scolded for not voting. Men should also be grateful for living in a democracy where civilians can vote, unlike in some other countries, why do they never get told off if they can’t be bothered to vote?

Rachel // Posted 16 December 2008 at 9:20 pm

To be fair, the thing about women needing to be over 30, married, property owners, university educated to vote when women were first enfranchised is specifically mentioned 5 lines in. That said, it is pretty awful, although I have read a lot worse.

Jess McCabe // Posted 16 December 2008 at 10:32 pm

@Rachel Yes, she mentioned this – then called it “random” and compared it to only letting women vote if the election was held in a month with an R in it. My point was, this erases the very real reasons *why* those restrictions were put in place, which was not “random”, but was a specific reflection of for example, wealthy people being seen as citizens, and people without property not being seen as citizens with rights.

That’s like saying it was “random” that only men were able to vote in the first place.

Jess McCabe // Posted 16 December 2008 at 10:34 pm

Quite, Sabre, but it was written by Julie Burchill not Julie Bindel!

Rachel // Posted 17 December 2008 at 8:30 am

I entirely agree with Jess that she obviously doesn’t understand the significance of the restrictions that were originally placed on women’s enfranchisement, but there have been some comments suggesting that she just got her facts wrong in the first place, which she didn’t. I don’t want to defend the article, but I think it’s much more credible to criticise the things that are actually wrong with it – ie her assessment that it was ‘random’, that to criticise the author unfairly for something she didn’t actually get wrong.

Sabre // Posted 17 December 2008 at 9:53 am


Sorry to Julie Bindel! I do often get their names confused, how embarassing.

Jenn // Posted 17 December 2008 at 10:39 am

Well, it’s too tempting to pick at the historical inaccuracies in this, but her bit about suffragettes’ initially peaceful protests turning violent is bullshit. I don’t think Christabel Pankhurst brooked any disagreement on the subject of throwing stones and smashing stuff up. They did use violent means of protest. They weren’t pacifists by any means. Well, actually Sylvia was reluctant about the violence, but Emmeline and Christabel certainly weren’t.

Charlotte // Posted 17 December 2008 at 11:38 am

I want a Cath Kidston straightjacket.

Kez // Posted 17 December 2008 at 12:08 pm

I don’t think anyone could or should take Julie Burchill seriously. She’s clearly intelligent and she can write, but my goodness, what a load of tripe she usually comes out with. Her entire output seems to be based on jotting down whatever comes into her head without worrying about whether it makes any kind of sense. Fair enough, she’s made a career out of it and her writing can be entertaining, but it really isn’t worth giving a second thought to, especially when it’s in The Sun.

I wonder how Julie Bindel feels about being confused with her? I guess neither of them worry much about offending people – indeed Burchill in particular seems to have made it her life’s work!

Shea // Posted 17 December 2008 at 4:19 pm

Well its just bizarre isnt it? With fairness, the voting restrictions initially applied to men also (only men with property and income of a certain amount), after the 1832 Reform Act, because only landed gentry were seen as having a stake in the country. Still rubbish though. There are still people in the UK floating the idea that those on benefits shouldnt be able to vote because they are not contributing economically. Sometimes you do wonder how much has really changed.

I thought the suffragettes were initially non-violent but had no choice due to the opposition they encountered. Their use of violence seems like a desperate bid to secure a crucial freedom, not the hi jinks of a girl gang the way Burchill makes out.

Sabre– “When did it become OK to target Muslims so relentlessly? ” End of the Cold War. We always need an ever present enemy to target and focus our military might towards. Plus, we need a reason for the £30billion + annual military spending, or we might have to put it towards development or reconstruction of those bombed out countries, or heaven forbid, hospitals and schools!

I think there is a very good post to be had hear about how the west has demonised Islam and Arabic nations as the most oppressive towards women. I always remember George W Bush, liberator and defender of womens rights (yeah right!), talking about the oppressiveness of the veil, prior to the Iraq invasion. He completely co-opted feminism for the sake of a neo-liberal agenda. Its b*llshit moral relativism to the nth degree.

Jenn // Posted 18 December 2008 at 4:15 pm

I thought the suffragettes were initially non-violent but had no choice due to the opposition they encountered. Their use of violence seems like a desperate bid to secure a crucial freedom, not the hi jinks of a girl gang the way Burchill makes out

I think neither of those, although your hypothesis is certainly closer to the truth than Burchill’s (I mean, she makes them sound like a naughtier Spice Girls!). I disagree with you in that I think it wasn’t desperate, it was a calculated next move. I mean, as was their decision to start courting a more select membership of conservative well-off women, and support the war effort – which I believe was the point when Sylvia went off to East London to work with working-class women, and eventually got chucked out by her sister.

One of the reasons I’m disagreeing, as well, is that the suffragettes are often portrayed as desperate and slightly irrational, which I know isn’t what you mean, but I still don’t like to start using words like ‘desperate’ to describe anything they did. For instance, was what happened to Emily Davison deliberate, or was she just trying to pin something on the King’s horse? It would be a bit rash to presume either way.

Jess McCabe // Posted 18 December 2008 at 4:26 pm

For instance, was what happened to Emily Davison deliberate, or was she just trying to pin something on the King’s horse? It would be a bit rash to presume either way.

I was under the impression she was not trying to commit suicide, actually, it was just represented that way. I think I’m remembering that from A Level history, though, so I could very well be wrong!

Rachel // Posted 19 December 2008 at 4:29 pm

In English history (as opposed to American in this context), women’s suffrage groups are generally distinguished by name according to whether or not they favoured violent methods. So ‘suffragettes’ usually refers to groups that did engage in violence while ‘suffragists’ usually means those who engaged in only non-violent activity. I don’t know how it works for American history.

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